Friday - - Mind Games -

The gi­gan­tic print ver­sion of the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary ran into 20 mon­u­men­tal tomes in its sec­ond edi­tion, con­tain­ing 59 mil­lion words, their def­i­ni­tions, et­y­mol­ogy and in­stances of first known us­age. Given this enor­mous num­ber, is it pos­si­ble that er­rors have crept in?

Most cer­tainly. This hasn’t hap­pened be­cause an in­dul­gent ed­i­tor nod­ded ap­prov­ingly at their in­clu­sion in the hope that a pla­gia­rist would be caught steal­ing in­for­ma­tion ver­ba­tim from the dic­tio­nary (you can’t copy­right the use of a dic­tio­nary word), but be­cause of out­right ed­i­to­rial er­rors. And, once a word gets into the OED, it never gets taken out.

Here’s the OED’s own take on th­ese words: “Oc­ca­sion­ally ‘ghost’ words find their way into dic­tionar­ies. Typ­i­cally th­ese are the re­sult of mis­read­ings of manuscripts or of ty­po­graph­i­cal er­rors by prin­ters. The Dic­tio­nary in­cludes a num­ber of th­ese, la­belled as ‘spu­ri­ous’ en­tries.”

Some ac­knowl­edged en­tries, with their ‘def­i­ni­tions’, were go­fysshe (er­ror for gosysshe, silly, stupid); here­bode (army mes­sen­ger); and min­ulize (ed­i­to­rial mis­read­ing of min­u­tize).

On oc­ca­sion a spu­ri­ous word was in­cluded as a hoax, ad­mit­ted or not, on the part of the com­piler. One fa­mous fic­ti­tious en­try that fooled lo­gol­o­gists for many years was ‘zzxjoanw’, which ap­peared as the last en­try in The Mu­si­cal Guide, an en­cy­clopae­dia of clas­si­cal mu­sic com­piled by Ru­pert Hughes, who added the fol­low­ing def­i­ni­tion:

“zzxjoanw (shaw). Maori. 1. Drum. 2. Fife. 3. Con­clu­sion.”

Nat­u­rally word lovers fell all over this de­lec­ta­ble morsel of a word. Hughes, one de­clared, “... presents us with one of the most un­be­liev­able, one of the most in­trigu­ing let­ter com­bi­na­tions ever to claim recog­ni­tion as a word: ZZXJOANW. This spec­tac­u­lar word is so ver­sa­tile it pos­sesses not merely one, but three dif­fer­ent mean­ings.” Adding to the allure was its aber­rant pro­nun­ci­a­tion sim­ply as ‘shaw’, in the fine old tra­di­tion of Wode­house’s Feather­stone­haugh which, for all its lofty spell­ing, was sim­ply said as ‘Fan­shaw’. Alas, be­fore Scrab­ble play­ers could join the pa­rade, the word was de­bunked.

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